In April, about 649,000 retail workers left their jobs—a record number of resignations for the industry. It was yet another inflection point in a broader trend sweeping workplaces, as employees reevaluate their relationship to work and act on the burnout induced by the pandemic.
For longtime retail workers like Susan, 44, who asked to use only her first name to protect her identity, the pandemic only exacerbated existing challenges in their line of work, from low wages and paltry benefits to inconsistent hours and chronic understaffing. “You can’t get time off, unless there’s somebody to cover for you,” she says. “And you can’t get anybody to cover for you if you can’t hire people.”
Susan had worked in retail for 14 years—first at Barnes & Noble and then at Pet Supplies Plus, the third-largest pet specialty retailer—before quitting in October. When she left her post in the fall, she was a general manager at a Pet Supplies Plus store. Like many other former retail workers, Susan eventually found a new job that offers better wages, benefits, and stable work hours. Here, she shares why she left retail and how she managed to find work in a new industry. This interview has been edited for clarity and space. (This story was originally published on July 27 and has been updated to include additional audio from the interview.)
‘For 14 years, I had no set sleep schedule or work schedule’
At Barnes & Noble, I was an hourly employee, and then when I moved to Pet Supplies Plus, I became a salaried employee. That’s a whole different lifestyle; I would get calls and texts at any hour of the day or night, so it was very hard to relax. For 14 years, I had no set sleep schedule or work schedule—so it was very difficult to see friends or family. On a standard week, I was required to work at least 45 [hours]. I tried to limit myself to 50. But there were moments where I worked probably in excess of 60 hours, when other store managers left or we were short-staffed.
It was very mentally and physically exhausting, and it really doesn’t lend itself to a healthy lifestyle because you end up just stuffing whatever you can in your mouth as quickly as you can. I was one of those people who tried to not say to my workers, “I went through this, so you have to go through it.” I would try to be like, “I went through this and it was wrong, so I don’t want anybody else to go through it.” I probably gave myself extra pressure that way.
‘We were wearing masks while throwing around 40 pound bags of cat litter all day long’
We did not shut down at all [during the pandemic]. We were considered an essential business because we sold food for animals that couldn’t be purchased anywhere else. I had no option to work from home—it was either go to work and do your job, or quit. Most of my hourly employees who were not managers were teenagers, and their parents had a variety of reactions. I had a couple of team members who had an elderly grandparent living with them or had a high-risk parent or a very cautious parent. They wanted them to not go to work, and of course I completely understood that. But they could make that choice because they were not subsisting on their income from the store. This was my main source of income, so I didn’t have a choice, really. And I think that’s one of the things that created a lot of resentment in me, and I think in a lot of other people.
There were a lot of [customers] who happily ordered online and continued to shop locally by getting us to just put it in their trunk, and that was great. I even had some people leave me a tip in their trunk when I brought their order out to the car, which was truly unnecessary but very sweet. Sometimes you would see people walk up to the door and be like, “oh, my gosh, I forgot my mask,” and they would run back to the car.
We [had] some customers who would come into the store, and they just had no shame or compunction about coming in maskless. Sometimes [they] would get this defiant look in their eye like, “I dare you to say something to me about this.” We asked our higher ups: “What should we do?” What [they] told us was, “we need all of the employees to comply. But if somebody comes in maskless into the store, don’t say anything to them. Just get them out of there as quickly as possible.” Of course what that says to me as an employee is that customer is more valuable to you than your staff. You’re willing to risk my life and not willing to risk turning that customer away.
The frustration and misinformation affected both employees and the general public. I had team members who struggled with being willing to wear a mask all day or needing to take breaks from it because it got really hot under there. Inside the stockroom or the warehouse, sometimes the air conditioning is not as good. I have absolutely no sympathy for anybody who says that they can’t breathe or have a difficult time breathing while doing literally anything with a mask on, because for months, we were wearing masks while throwing around 40 pound bags of cat litter all day long.
We also had to make really difficult decisions [about] what to do in the off hours. I have housemates, and they were all working from home. So what I did was intentionally isolate myself from a lot of other people because I knew I was putting myself at risk in my job on a daily basis. I knew that I could not afford to get sick because if I got sick, the store would be screwed, because I was their only salaried employee. Local stores are very in touch with each other, and I would hear daily from the other store managers what was going on there. I knew if I got sick, one of them was going to have to increase their workload and cover for me. And I would have to cover for them if they got sick.
‘I needed to see my family’
For a long time, I had been feeling like I just didn’t want to live this way anymore. My parents are in Illinois. By last fall, I had not seen them in person for two and a half years. My dad has some health issues, so it’s not as easy for them to travel out here. And I couldn’t get enough time off to go visit them because I couldn’t get people to cover for me for long enough. I had planned a vacation to go see them; this was in September, and we were thinking things were getting better after the first big wave. So I was like, “this is my chance. I need to go.” And then my assistant manager quit.
I tried to do lots of things to hire people [and] get more management, and it was very difficult. I asked, “can we get more hours? Can I raise wages?” The answer was no, and I [could] see no other way to solve this. I just decided that I needed to see my family—and [quitting] was the only way I was going to get to do it.
I was in a very unusual, somewhat fortunate position: I was working the entire pandemic. I never had any loss of income, but I got some stimulus funds. [My company had] a monthly bonus structure, and they did offer some financial incentives during the pandemic. For the first time really ever, I was able to have some money in savings, which I needed because it took me five months to find a job.
‘I went from one essential worker job to another essential worker job’
I had decided that I didn’t want to work in retail anymore. There were plenty of retail jobs open; I could have gotten all kinds of retail jobs. I even applied at a couple places where I knew the conditions were better, but I decided I didn’t want to pursue that, because I knew I would be getting back into that life again.
I think there’s a big problem for retail workers, in particular, with regards to how hiring is done now. My store was small enough that anytime that I got a résumé, I would read it myself; we didn’t have any kind of software to pick applicants. But whenever you have a system like that, the first thing that the software is going to do is look for somebody who’s done that exact job before. So if you’re hiring for a [non-retail job, like an] administrative assistant, the first thing they’re going to do is look on a résumé for anybody who has been an administrative assistant. I applied to probably 50 jobs, and I got three interviews. And the interviews I got were all because of a friend.
A friend who’s a nurse told me her hospital unit was looking for an administrative coordinator. We had worked previously together at Barnes & Noble, so she was familiar with my work ethic. So I went from one essential worker job to another essential worker job. This was in February, and on top of that, my office is located on a pulmonary unit. We have all kinds of patients who are experiencing post-COVID-19 symptoms, so I hear all kinds of stories.
‘I want to tell employers out there to give retail workers a chance’
It was so hard to get here. I want to emphasize that [leaving retail] was very much like leaving an abusive relationship. You have to run away, but it’s so hard to get out. After working 90 days here, I asked for a review. Some of the things that my bosses told me—they said I was flexible, persistent, that I responded very quickly—those are all things that I learned from working in retail. I’m used to working at a quick pace.
Now I think of the units that I work on—the nurses and people—as my customers. They’re the people that I’m there to serve. You can teach anybody how to run an Outlook calendar. But can you teach them how to problem solve on the fly? Or how to prioritize? I want to tell employers out there to give retail workers a chance because we have just incredible skills that you may not realize that we have.